8-Bit Replay – G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1991) for NES

By the time I hit high school at the end of the 1980s, the Nintendo Entertainment System was at the peak of its cultural domination. I owned a bunch of games and rented at least two or three more every week from the local video store. The 1991 release of G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero for NES helped bridge the gap during my teenage transition from toys to video games.

I’ve written before about my childhood obsession with Hasbro’s G.I. Joe toy line. Truth be told, I never really stopped buying G.I. Joes. Even after I was supposed to have grown out of playing with toys, I couldn’t resist picking up the occasional cool-looking action figure that caught my eye (especially any new release of Snake Eyes). I just didn’t admit it to my friends anymore. Video games, however, were much more socially acceptable at that age, and every one of my friends had an NES. When Taxan released an official G.I. Joe game for NES, combining two of my favorite things in the world, it felt like it must have been made with me in mind.

G.I. Joe NES (1991) character selection
Title:G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
Year of Release: 1991
Publisher: Taxan
Gaming Platform: NES

The NES release was not Hasbro’s first attempt to license G.I. Joe for a video game. I remember seeing ads for an Atari 2600 game called G.I. Joe: Cobra Strike (1983) on the back cover of Marvel’s G.I. Joe comic book, but I never owned an Atari and the print ad couldn’t disguise how primitive the graphics looked. According to Wikipedia, more titles followed on platforms such as Apple II, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum, all of which went unnoticed by me at the time. The NES was the first gaming console I owned and I didn’t care much about video games before it.

The G.I. Joe brand was already well past the peak of its popularity in 1991 and had started to wane in the marketplace. In fact, it would only last a few more years before Hasbro canceled it in 1994. Nevertheless, it was still a major toy line with a cartoon on TV and a comic on newsstand racks. You could hardly find a boy in America who didn’t have a Duke or Snake Eyes action figure somewhere in his toy box.

The NES game of course features those two marquee characters, but Hasbro insisted that it also promote the latest batch of plastic product on store shelves. As a result, it winds up headlining some lesser characters who never particularly caught on with fans, such as Blizzard and Capt. Grid-Iron. Enemies they fight include also-ran villains like Metal-Head, Overlord, and Voltar. Bizarrely, even the widely-ridiculed Raptor and Golobulus make appearances, despite the fact that both were a few years old at that point and basically nobody ever liked them.

I expect that you’d need to be well-versed in G.I. Joe lore for most of those names to mean anything to you. Suffice it to say that the game comes from a time when G.I. Joe got pretty goofy – that is, got even goofier than it already had been in its prime.

G.I. Joe NES (1991) - Snake Eyes vs. Viper

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero is a side-scrolling shoot-’em-up game in which agents from America’s most elite military unit must travel to various points in the world to defeat the evil Cobra terrorist organization and blow up its bases. Six missions take you to the Amazon, Antarctica, the New York City sewer system, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Sahara desert, and ultimately the fictional Cobra Island. Each mission is divided into three levels with a boss to defeat. Some bosses are Cobra characters while others are vehicles. Unsurprisingly, the final mission leads to a showdown with the supreme leader himself, Cobra Commander.

Playable characters include Duke, Snake Eyes, Rock ‘N Roll, Blizzard, or Capt. Grid-Iron. G.I. Joe honcho Gen. Hawk issues orders at the start of every mission and unlocks as a playable character when you get to Cobra Island. A team leader is automatically assigned at the start of each mission, and players are then allowed to select two other characters to join him. Although only one character is playable at a time, you may switch between your three choices at any point. This is generally advisable to do when one’s life meter gets low. If your character dies during a level, you’ll restart at the beginning with one of the others until all three are defeated. Any character who dies during a level will be locked out for the remainder of the mission, but will conveniently get resurrected at the start of the next mission. A Continue option is available when all characters die, but you’ll lose all of your power-ups. Passwords are given after each mission so you can pick up later without starting from the beginning.

Each character comes with a unique weapon and has distinct strengths. Snake Eyes the ninja, for example, can jump the highest. Because his primary weapon is a sword, he also never runs out of ammo. Rock ‘N Roll is the strongest and his machine gun inflicts the most damage, but he also starts with the lowest stamina (life meter) and is the poorest at jumping. When you get him, Gen. Hawk wears a jet pack that lets him fly over obstacles and enemies.

In addition to the primary weapon, your character can conserve ammo by simple punching instead. All of them also seem to have an unlimited supply of hand grenades that are only useful when attacking something directly overhead. Weirdly, Snake Eyes can throw some sort of mystical energy blasts (because ninjas are magic, I guess).

At various points, you may capture and pilot small Cobra vehicles, such as a Battle Copter, a Buzz Boar, or a bouncing Pogo. These are typically more of a hassle than they’re worth and I found it easier to skip them in most levels.

G.I. Joe NES (1991) - Blizzard

The graphics are pretty decent for an 8-bit NES game. Most of the heroes are recognizable from their character sprites, though Duke looks like a generic green Army soldier lacking any personality. Some of the enemies are better representations of their toy appearances than others. The basic Cobra Viper troopers are spot-on to the action figure, while some others even I am hard-pressed to identify. The backgrounds and level environments are well rendered for this era of gaming.

The music is adequate, but nothing about it says G.I. Joe to me. The game would be much improved if it could have licensed the theme song and score from the Sunbow cartoon.

Gameplay is both simple and frustrating. Levels progress in a linear fashion. In each mission, your character charges through the level shooting or punching enemies until they blow up. Most of the enemies are very stupid and move in repetitive patterns. (The Vipers can only take a few steps and fire one shot at a time, and always continue walking in one direction until they hit an obstacle.) In the final stage of each mission, you must plant bombs at checkpoints before you’re allowed to exit. Some of the levels are laid out as very confusing mazes that are nearly impossible to navigate without following a walkthrough guide.

Boss characters are mostly oversized and out of scale with anything else in the game, and feature inexplicable superhuman powers that have no precedent in any other G.I. Joe media. Silly bird-wrangler Raptor can somehow fly, for example, while demolitions master Metal-Head jumps and flips and bounces all over the place like a demented ping-pong ball. Some of the bosses are relatively easy to beat, but others will require multiple attempts until you can master their attack patterns. The penultimate boss, Destro, is by far the hardest in the game. If you can get past Destro, Cobra Commander isn’t so tough, especially if you can face him using Hawk’s jet pack.

G.I. Joe NES (1991) - Duke vs. Raptor

Like many NES titles, the physics of the gameplay make little to no sense. Even the weakest characters can jump the equivalent of thirty feet straight up from a standstill and change direction in mid-air. More than one level will require you to hop over a flying airplane or plummet hundreds of feet down a deep shaft to land without so much as flinching. Yet in other stages you’ll die instantly if you fall into a hole in the floor.

I’m not convinced that the designers of this game actually knew much about G.I. Joe when making it. In addition to bosses with magical powers, other oddities abound. Cobra H.E.A.T. Vipers, officially classified as “Bazooka Men” who carry giant rocket launchers, are presented as flamethrower troopers. Characters from the mystical Cobra-La, a third-party faction that operates separately from Cobra, intermingle with the regular Cobra forces. Perhaps weirdest of all, one of the Sahara levels ends with a Cobra B.U.G.G. underwater submersible vehicle driving through the desert sands. I honestly wonder if anyone at Hasbro bothered to vet this.

Issues like these really irritated me at the time, and the game was never one of my favorites. I rented it enough to play through to the end, but it wasn’t a keeper. Revisiting it three decades later, I am definitely reminded of all those flaws but am also perhaps more forgiving of them. The game is reasonably fun, if imperfect. I would never call it one of the best NES titles of the era, yet it’s also pretty far from one of the worst. I get enough of a kick out of seeing G.I. Joe rendered in 8-bit form that nostalgia overpowers my nit-picking.

G.I. Joe NES Video Game (1991) box

Publisher Taxan went out of business later in 1991, not long after the release of this game. However, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero must have been at least somewhat successful on NES, as the same development team made a sequel called G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor that was released by Capcom the following year.

2 thoughts on “8-Bit Replay – G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (1991) for NES

  1. I’m not sure I ever knew a G.I. Joe game for the NES even existed, which is unreal to me. Thanks for writing about this!

    It’s good to see that the franchise is still chugging along in the gaming world. Hasbro opened a new studio that’s working on a Snake Eyes game.

    Liked by 1 person

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